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Dead end: a new beginning

Published to howls of outrage in the US, the most controversial and provocative parenting book of recent times will be out in India early next month.

entertainment Updated: Feb 19, 2011 20:01 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

Published to howls of outrage in the US, the most controversial and provocative parenting book of recent times will be out in India early next month.

The daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, Amy Chua teaches law at Yale and is the author of books on global superpowers. Now she has published a memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she argues in favour of the supremacy of the Chinese method of parenting and shows deep disdain for the approach that allows childhood to be fun and encourages children to make their own choices and mistakes.

So what does Chua advocate?

Well, these are some of the things she actually did: She never allowed her two daughters to watch TV; to play computer games; to not be the best student in class in any subject other than gym and drama; to choose their extracurricular activities for themselves (and then she made those activities so regimented and coaching-centric that they became like curricular activities).

When her younger daughter, Lulu, was three, and refused to play the piano, Chua, on one of the coldest days of the Connecticut winter (“My own face hurt with a few seconds of exposure to the icy air”), took her outside, and threatened to leave here there — “wearing only a sweater, ruffled skirt and tights” — till the child obeyed.

On another occasion, one of them was made to practise through dinner, till midnight, without being allowed food, water or even a bathroom break, till the notes turned out to Chua’s satisfaction.

When one of her daughters came in second in a maths test, Chua made her solve 2,000 problems through the night so that such a catastrophe never occurred again. It didn’t.

It’s hard to tell when Chua is being deadpan and when earnest. (After she runs her car over her elder daughter Sophia’s foot, she says that the accident at least left Sophia with more time for piano practice.) What is unequivocal is the certitude of her tone, and her belief that she knows best. Not for her the ambivalence and anxiety that some of us, as parents, always feel.

Chua is contemptuous of the parent who feels that being liberal and respectful of one’s child’s wishes is an important part of parenting. “Chinese parents,” Chua writes (although she is not Chinese — as one of her friends and daughters point out in the book) “believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.”

She thinks that this is the really hard thing to do, because children are naturally disinclined to work hard, and to force them to work and to leave oneself open to their resentment is a kind of sacrifice that only a particular kind of — and particularly driven kind of — parent would be selfless enough to make.

Everything goes swimmingly for years. Chua elicits envious and admiring comments from her friends and colleagues as her daughters outshine their peers in all that they do. Having won a nationwide competition, Sophia plays at the Carnegie Hall at the age of 14. Lulu impresses one of the best violin teachers in the world. In school, they are both incomparable, never deviating from the tenet that an A is the least one can get. Only Chua’s husband, Jed Rubenfeld, law professor at Yale and author of the international bestseller, The Interpretation of Murder, sounds a warning note, and asks her to ease off. Chua scoffs at him.

The tension in the household keeps building every day with Lulu resenting her mother’s uncompromising sternness and resolve to be a control freak. The blowback comes during a family holiday in Russia.

In a café in Moscow’s Red Square, Lulu is ordered to eat caviar when she doesn’t want to. She is then abused and insulted. Lulu, then 14, screams at her mother: “I hate you… You’ve wrecked my life… Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself.”

This is the moment — towards the end — on which the book turns. Uncertainty shakes Chua. She gets up from the table, begins to run, and keeps on running. “Then I stopped. I had come to the end of Red Square. There was nowhere to go.” What appears to be a dead end becomes a new beginning. Lulu has her way: she gives up the violin and turns to tennis. Chua tries to lecture her on that, too, and speak to her coach, but faced with Lulu’s resentment, gives up. Sophia, less questioning of authority, continues to dazzle in all the things Chua sets her out to do.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is as gripping as a thriller, and, very often, as frightening. For pushy parents (especially the ones who don’t admit to being pushy), and for the ones whom Chua would despise for their lazy liberalism, this is a compelling, must-read book.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Bloomsbury, Rs 450) will be published in India next month